St Petersburg, July 20:

It wasn’t quite the shoot out at the OK Corral, but for the G8 it was as close as you might have got to it. Round the table in St Petersburg, a game of diplomatic poker was being played for high stakes.

Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), had flown in from Geneva for the meeting and his message could hardly have been starker: the talks that had been plodding on since November 2001 for a new round of trade liberalisation were going nowhere.

Everyone demanded concessions but no one had the flexibility to budge an inch. “It’s up to you,” Lamy told the G8, “Give your people in Geneva room to negotiate or face the consequences.” George Bush asked Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, “Are you prepared to move if we move?”

“Yes,” Barroso replied, “If you cut subsidies to American farmers, we are willing to make deeper cuts in the tariffs that stop agricultural goods coming into Europe. But we want an assurance from Brazil and India that they will cut their tariffs on industrial goods so that European manufacturers can sell more in the bigger developing economies.” In the final hand of the game, the president of Brazil, and India’s prime minister, laid their cards on the table. They, too, they said, were willing to compromise.

Jacques Chirac, predictably, was not best pleased. He tried to shout down both Lamy and Barroso, but the pair simply ignored him. In the absence of support from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, he became isolated.

For British prime minister Tony Blair it was a sweet moment. He had been trying for more than six months to give the trade talks some high-level political impetus. Behind the scenes, he had been cajoling Bush, da Silva, Thabo Mbeki, and Merkel to throw their weight behind a G8 initiative.